Dr. Golfman will be away from the office and the blog for two weeks. Stay tuned for her next post on Monday, March 2.
AJ Batac, “A golden apple” ©2012. CC By 2.0.
Any moment now we will hear the call for submissions to the 2015 President’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching and Graduate Supervision. One of my pleasurable duties in this role was announcing the 2014 winners at a recent ceremony honouring their contributions in and beyond the classroom. It was a happy, lively event that included excellent researchers, as well. Everyone was smiling. Applause was intense. It’s a humbling experience for the award winners, especially when one’s peers and students are calling the shots.
It’s not exactly radical to say that excellence in research is way easier to measure than excellence in teaching and supervision. I am on record in blogs and elsewhere as feeling ambivalent about teaching awards, largely because of this reason, but I recognize their value and it’s unthinkable today to consider a university without them. They have lagged after the establishment of research awards for obvious reasons, but are catching up in importance and prestige. Even the detractors who have written about how teaching awards are sometimes given to compensate people for not doing enough research lament their historic devaluation in the academy. The fact remains that in subtle and largely unspoken ways research still claims more respect than teaching in the academy in general, but we are slowly, necessarily trying to redress that tendency.
Memorial is still relatively new at this game and we are just starting to build a cohort of award winners on whom we should be drawing for leadership and innovation in the classroom, to use an old-fashioned term. Some universities have really turned this group into a special kind of club of experts whom everyone recognizes. With the current rollout of the Teaching and Learning Framework and the establishment of Teaching Chairs in our faculties and schools, the awards ought to be assuming more prominence.
Excellence in graduate supervision is a relatively new category at Memorial. I admit that as dean of graduate studies I resisted setting up the award—well, more like whimpered to myself—but I was clearly outnumbered by colleagues, staff, and students who (rightly) thought the time had come. My problem with the category comes from the same place, unease about how one can fruitfully compare Professor A’s and Professor B’s mentoring styles. It’s all a little too much like that cliché about art – you don’t know what good supervision is but you recognize it when you see it. My other issue with it is that I consider almost every single colleague who takes on the noble ask of graduate supervision to be excellent. The vast majority of our students actually complete their research and succeed in completing their programs under the tutelage of their supervisors. In my view, every single success speaks to the excellence of supervision. I know that’s not really always the case, and sometimes students finish despite their supervisors, but you know what I mean.
And so what distinguishes an excellent supervisor from a not-so-excellent supervisor?
As dean, I definitely came to see which supervisors were popular in some units, and appreciated the enthusiasm with which many colleagues embraced the supervisory enterprise, regardless of workload and other demands on their time. And in some units there will always be professors by whom no self-respecting student would ever wish to be supervised. That’s just the way it goes. It’s got to be a good fit for all parties concerned. The excellent ones devote more time to their students, are attentive and engaged in their students’ work, will encourage them to publish, even co-publish, attend conferences, and put their work out there. Perhaps, mote important, excellent supervisors give their mentees a lot of self-confidence—the gift that keeps on giving.
All that said, my own experience as a supervisor is varied. So much depends on the personality and inclinations of the student herself. I once supervised a PhD student who pretty much told me to leave him alone, that he would show up with work when he was ready to do so. What is one supposed to do with that? You can’t go chasing after someone who abhors face-to-face meetings. At the other end of expectations, I have supervised students who preferred biweekly meetings, regular check-ins, and almost constant, detailed conversation about their drafts. So it is that I have never been able to say I had a particular supervisory style or pattern of mentoring. I have always tried to find balance between keeping the student in close view and giving them as much autonomy and independence as possible.
Some like to argue that teaching and supervisor awards are popularity contests. Frankly, I have never had a problem with popularity contests. Being popular can very well mean being excellent and it’s specious to separate these terms. What’s with the general dismissal of popularity, anyway? It smacks of envy, or elitism, or both. Ultimately, it’s students who determine popularity or excellence. They are the final arbiters of success in these categories and often the ones who nominate their mentors for these awards in the first place. Proper thing. I get nervous when I hear about faculty who are drumming up their own award campaigns. I know that’s the way it works in the real world of Oscar competition. But, then, actors don’t have students who appreciate them, just fans who don’t vote.
Ideally, I would love to see lots and lots of people being nominated for these awards. The more competition, the more value the awards will have. I look forward to more discussion among us about what makes for excellence in teaching and supervision. We’ll never nail it to just one or two things, but that’s the charm of it. Memorial is well populated by excellent teachers and supervisors and so if you are reading this and know who I am talking about then give that person a nudge in the general direction of the nomination process. The awards ceremony is a lot of fun, for starters.
Actually, that’s a tweet I would never send. My beloved partner is a life-long Patriots fan, stemming from his college days in Boston, and there is no way our household would tolerate opposing loyalties. Like attracts like and my attraction to the likes of a Tom Brady are harmoniously matched. (If you have no idea what I am talking about right now then you are from a nation that does not play or care about American football or you are partnered with someone who, like you, does not care a fig about it.)
Speaking of like attracting like, there’s been a bit of activity lately around a popular hashtag, #RuinADateWithAnAcademicInFiveWords. It’s caught a small buzz because it’s pretty easy to play long. You can go browse for yourself, but some recent sample tweets include, “So, what’s the point?” “I applied for the same funding,” and “That’s just a theory!” According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “a sure way to kill the mood [on a date] is to speak admiringly of astrology, Fox News, homeopathic medicine, The History Channel, or Malcolm Gladwell. Disavowals of coffee, evolution, and Oxford commas might not play well, either.” My social media feed is full of this stuff.
I would never boast about watching Fox News or disavow evolutionary theory but I haven’t had a cup of coffee in years and I do notice that colleagues find that a little peculiar. I met my husband before I quit the stuff and so for a time we shared the same fresh brew, no conflict there. Academics come with a lot of baggage, to be sure. Long ago I gave up telling a stranger on a plane that I was an English prof. Nothing shut down the conversation faster. The only recurring response would be something like “I never did good in English.” Right. Pass the pretzels.
Academics have long been the subject of derision in popular culture. There is an entire literature devoted to stereotyping us as absent-minded eggheads or severely troubled, bored underachievers. These images show no sign of disappearing. In the main, this can be a benign, kind of backhanded compliment. Take the most famous archeologist on screen, Indiana Jones—a tweedy, nerdy paper-addled prof by day, a cool action dude in another life. Or Michael Douglas’s English Professor Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys, who spends much of his time not finishing a book and shuffling around in an old bathrobe. Famously, Michael Caine as Frank Bryant in Educating Rita is a failed poet who spends a lot of his time staring down the bottom of a whiskey glass. Why would anyone want to date any of these fellas—except, maybe, another academic.
Except for the preternaturally agile Professor Jones, all of these characters and many more are troubled, somewhat isolated souls. Even the “beautiful mind” of Russell Crowe’s mathematician John Nash was clouded by mental illness. And, more recently, we have the inspired example of Alan Turing, the socially dysfunctional scientist who cracked the Enigma code and helped shorten the war.
Note that professors usually come in the XY chromosome variety. There is a very small literary and film history of women professor characters, but, as with the academy itself, we are underrepresented in some fields. In The Mirror Has Two Faces we get two Columbia profs in a marriage from hell. They are equally smart but the whole plot hinges on the male prof’s disinterest in having sex with his brainy wife. She has to transform herself from a dumpy brainiac into a svelte brainiac to get his attention. Barbara Streisand, what were you thinking? Enough said.
No film is funnier or ever will be about professors and the academy than the Marx Brothers 1932 comedy, Horse Feathers. It sets the gold standard, with Groucho playing the role of Huxley University President Wagstaff. He loves to tease his decrepit looking professoriate by tugging their gnarled beards and singing “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” perfectly capturing a prevailing view of the critical negativity of the academy. A football match drives the plot of the film but along the way we get to witness a satirical subversion of university life in general, where sports and sex dominate. It’s all over the top and alarmingly familiar. Now, how Wagstaff got the job of president is never questioned, suggesting way too much about how universities function at higher levels of activity.
One university currently confronting a time-honoured stereotype about its cultural attractions is the University of Moncton. Last month they launched a recruitment video that promises to play until hell freezes over. It features two handsome looking people having a kiss in the library stacks, you know, where all kinds of stuff like that has always happened. A debate blew up about whether or not this was an appropriate image for a university, and just what was being sold here? I don’t have strong feelings about this one way or the other but I do think the backlash has something to do with the kind of clichéd representation of university life described above. The whole Dal Dentistry Faculty debacle has also heightened the discussion about appropriateness and professional image, and so that’s also feeding the resistance to images of young people kissing. Marketing classes, on the other hand, are having a field day analyzing the reactions.
That’s the challenge of university culture these days: how to combat a century’s worth of negative stereotypes? If you can’t even show two people kissing (imagine what the French would say about our so-called debate over this), we obviously have too much time on our hands—another myth about our professional lives, I might add.